October 28, 2008 lia

Bikes, Beer, and Belgium: A BlackBerry Holiday

Namur, Belgium, taken with my BlackBerry and emailed in almost real time to friends abroad.
Lonely Planet is the bible of choice for backpackers all over the world. My LPs have gotten me around all sorts of places where I didn’t speak the local language, didn’t have time to wait to ask the locals how often the boat leaves for ___, and have given me the needed direction when faced with thousands of decisions ranging from how do I eat, to what is the best itinerary for 5 days in ___ country.
However, I was finding myself living vicariously through my LP, afraid to venture off its suggested paths, into the unknown world of self-reliant exploration. As a stepping stone away from the Lonely Planet Holiday towards Independant Travel, I have discovered the WikiTravel Holiday, the Google Holiday, and on a trip to Belgium and Holland in June 2008, the BlackBerry Holiday.

Holland’s cities are living laboratories of Urban Planning…I had friends to visit in Amsterdam…my brother is a student of homebrew…Belgian beers are our family favourite…a trip to Holland and to Belgium as a ‘research’ trip…but if we are drinking, we should cycle instead of drive…I’m too busy for Wikitravel and Google research before we get on the plane! And so was born the theme of our trip: Bikes, Beer, and Belgium – on a BlackBerry.


Virtually all of our research including accomodation, cycling distances (but not elevations!!!), people to meet up with, brew pub opening hours, bicycle rentals, and restaurants came from various applications on my blackberry. At historical locations, I could simply wiki the name of the place, and we had an instant self-guided tour full of interesting little tidbits of information to help explain what we were seeing. On the train into a new city, we would search for accomodation, plug the address into google maps, route the path from the train station to the hotel including exact route distance, and organise our hotel choices with all of this in mind. Quite a departure from the usual walking-aimlessly-carrying-6-months-of-gear-on-your-back-looking-for-accommodation ritual that backpackers in Europe can empathise with.


What’s dangerous about the convenience of travel is that we have gotten lazy. I rarely prepare anything before a trip these days, I know much less about the place I’m going before I depart, and this has very negative impacts on my depth of experience of new places. I used to have rules: always know how to say ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’, ‘Excuse me’, and ‘Hello’ in the local language before setting foot in a new country; have some knowledge of the political and social history of a place; it’s staple cuisine and traditional dishes; etc. In fact, I have been so laissez-faire with travel in recent years that I have caught myself looking up the significance of places and sites after I’ve gotten back from a trip, when I finally have time to enquire. I am often so busy before a trip that I don’t even have time to print the Wikitravel notes I copied and pasted way back when I had first bought the ticket!


I had an excellent trip to Beirut this summer — I went with a friend who was from Beirut and with an urban planner colleague of mine in Abu Dhabi. Before I left, I was determined to finish the Heart of Beirut book I had bought the year before — a book which explores the urban history of a famous square in Beirut through the eyes of the people who had occupied it, and how people and politics have transformed the urban form of Beirut. But in the days before my departure for Beirut, I was still in the book’s prologue!


Luckily for me, my roommate’s an urban planner…from Beirut…whose last job was working for the urban planning authority in Beirut responsible for the masterplanning and reconstruction of the city’s historical downtown. In 1 hour, using the excellent diagrams and maps from my book, she walked me through the layers of the city, the story of what I was about to go see. And my trip to Beirut was one of the richest trips I have had in years. I don’t expect the luxury of having a local urban planning expert who speaks perfect English guide me through every travel experience of my future, but it did remind me how important stories are to a landscape, and how they can mould your experience of one.


Will my BlackBerry only make me lazier? Or will it add layers of conventional information, alternative stories, historical reference, and sub-cultures to my experience? Why spend so much money and time traveling when you can’t invest those few hours before you leave to learn things that will make your experience exponentially richer? If I depend on GPS all the time, will I entirely lose my good sense of direction? I take pictures with my BlackBerry and immediately in near real-time send them to friends abroad, yet I never get around to putting words to the picture by bringing any depth to the stories of my travels on my blog anymore? Is access to third party (English) information conveniently enabling me to avoid engaging with people right in front of me?


I think I know the easiest solution: a Lonely Planet Application for BlackBerrys.